Picture: 123RF/SERG GRIGORENKO
Picture: 123RF/SERG GRIGORENKO

Beijing — China’s large-scale hog farms that survived the world’s worst animal disease outbreak are expanding their herds, driving a recovery in sow numbers as early as next year, a pig conference was told.

The restocking of industrial-scale farms will result in a shift in hog production in the world’s largest pork-consuming nation, said Qiu Huaji, head of swine infectious diseases with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences’ Harbin Veterinary Research Institute. Their scale-up will lead to greater improvement in measures to protect pigs from African swine fever.

“The disease will cause an industry-wide shuffle, forcing breeders to boost bio-security and accelerating the expansion of large-scale farms,” Qiu told a conference on African swine fever in Zhengzhou, Henan province, attended by about 5,000 people at the weekend starting October 19.

The virus, which kills most pigs in two weeks but isn’t known to harm humans, has slashed China’s swine herd by half since it was first reported in August 2018, according to Rabobank. That’s led to a massive shortfall in pork supplies, which has caused domestic prices to more than double, boosting imports and ratcheting up the cost of meat worldwide. China’s pork purchases from overseas jumped more than 70% in September from a year earlier.

“Many producers have exited the industry and others are reluctant to restock due to ongoing disease risk,” the US department of agriculture (USDA) said in an October 10 report. Still, the possibility of record profits is a strong motivation to restock and increase production, it said.

Muyuan Foodstuff, which raises pigs and supplies livestock feed, expects to have 1.3-million sows by the end of 2019 after rebuilding its herd and expanding its animal-feed and slaughtering operations. Net income more than tripled to 1.54-billion yuan ($217m) in the third quarter, Muyuan reported in October.

The company, based in Nanyang, Henan, has implemented measures to mitigate disease threats, chair Qin Yinglin told the conference. “We are confident that African swine fever virus can be eradicated on large farms in China and that a vaccine isn’t necessary.” 

Encouraging hogs

The Chinese ministry of agriculture and rural affairs released guidelines last month for the restocking of African swine fever-affected farms. The government has made expansion a priority, encouraging provincial and local authorities to set production goals and make additional land available for hog production, according to the USDA.

“Local authorities have also been instructed to ease up on environmental regulations that limit where farms can be built — a reversal of policy over the past four years that made building new hog farms difficult or impossible in many regions,” the USDA said.

New Hope Liuhe, which raises pigs and supplies 15-million tonnes of animal feed to 250,000 users annually, is trying to meet the dual needs of increasing pork supply and protecting the environment. The company, based in Chengdu, Sichuan province, aims to have the capacity to breed 25-million pigs in 2022, chair Liu Yonghao said last month.

Pig effluent

New Hope’s expansion efforts include animal waste treatment, vice-president Ji Chongxing told the conference.

“Large firms are trying their best to boost their sow herds,” said Lin Guofa, a senior analyst at Bric Agriculture Group. “Small ones are about to be phased out of the business as many have been left penniless after the disease.” He thinks the number of farms that raise more than 5,000 hogs annually could double next year.

About half of China’s 26-million pig producers raise fewer than 500 hogs each. The country’s agriculture ministry detailed a plan in 2017 to ensure farms producing at least 500 hogs a year account for 52% of domestic output by 2020, compared to 42% in 2014.

“For big operations, the speed of recovery is very rapid” once disease-control measures have been implemented, said Bao Hongxing, chair of Twins Group, one of the country’s major animal-feed producers.

Farms raising fewer than 3,000 pigs a year have less confidence to rebuild, and those lacking the bio-security needed to prevent disease outbreaks have difficulty gaining approval for bank loans, Bao said, adding that Twins Group is aggressively buying these farms to expand.

Sow-led recovery

Sows, which can produce 20 or more piglets a year, are critical to boosting China’s domestic pork supply. Sow numbers in September were 40% below levels a year earlier. Still, the breeding herd should rebound to pre-outbreak levels next year, Muyuan and New Hope Liuhe executives told the Zhengzhou conference.

Wens Foodstuffs Group, the country’s largest pig breeder, and COFCO Meat both said they retained their sow herd as breeding stock instead of being slaughtered for meat. Wens will accelerate its expansion to reach a targeted 70-million pigs a year, or the equivalent of 10% of the country’s total number of hogs slaughtered.

A 15kg gilt, or female piglet, for breeding purposes recently fetched as much as 5,000 yuan, compared with 1,800 yuan for a piglet destined for meat production, Bric Agriculture’s Lin said.

China had about 30-million before African swine fever. A rebound in sow numbers will boost pork supply in the fourth quarter of 2020 or early 2021 at the earliest, assuming no further widespread outbreaks, Lin said.

Still, there’s no certainty of that, the Harbin institute’s Qiu said. “The disease is like an enemy who may break into your house any time,” said Qiu, who has studied ways to protect farms, including the protective effects of Chinese medicines.

Even if pork production bounces back, it’s likely consumer demand for it won’t fully recover, according to John Deen, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota. “Consumers are so shocked by high pork prices and they may never come back to the same level as before.” 

Domestic pork consumption may drop by 40% to 50% as surging pork prices lead restaurants to serve less pig meat, said Yan Zhicun, chief science officer with New Hope Liuhe Group.

Bloomberg